Flavors: Fresh Food Found at the Gas Station
In Big Sky country, we drive. Inevitably, we end up at the gas station to refuel. As the car fills up with gas, we run into the store to use the restroom or to pick up a snack. Instead of my usual gas and dash from the gas station, I took an in-depth look at Holiday Stationstore 470. This gasoline and convenience store opened in the southwest end of Billings at the end of last year.
After entering a foyer featuring wiper fluid, ice chests and bait, I slipped through the sliding door to enter a shiny, bright, high ceiling space. I was reminded of stepping into a department store.
Regional Director of Operations, Valeria Jeffries, said, “I want customers to be surprised, because I think often times people think of gas stations as having unhealthy food, poor selection, old or dry food, and bad coffee that has been sitting around for hours. I want them to be surprised and I want them to know that we have a huge selection of fresh food and that we can pretty much fill their needs 24/7.”
“The Holiday companies were started many years ago by the Erickson brothers, who were farmers. Their very first store, called Number 1, was established in Lindstrom, Minnesota.” These days there are over 500 company and franchise owned stores.
Jeff Reed, Market Manager for the Billings Holidaystores, said that daily customer traffic in the eleven stores in Montana “averages about 2000 shoppers a day.”
Of the type of customers, Teddi Metzen, Training Store Manager at 470 said, “In the mornings between 4 and 6 a.m., we have a lot of people who are going to work, and then during the day, it’s more who are doing lunch breaks, and in between are the travelers.”
Signage and photos on the wall clearly mark the sections of the store. With eye level shelving, a customer can quickly come into the store and scan for the direction they need to move to efficiently grab something to go. Hot food is displayed at waist level in neatly wrapped packing with labels in large enough letters to read quickly.
The latest offering in the store is the fresh coffee bean-to-cup concept. With a few pushes on a touch screen, fresh beans are ground into a reservoir to brew a fresh cup of coffee. Metzen said, “The new coffee program is awesome because you get a fresh cup of coffee every time, and you don’t have to wait. It literally takes the same time you would spend pouring it out of a thermal that somebody else made.”
To accompany that cup of coffee, a BAKERY section offers up freshly baked cookies and muffins. In the new store, the food service station is in the front of the store. With a bank of convection/microwave ovens, food can be baked and distributed directly on to the display trays. While most food prep is usually relegated to the back of a facility, the up-front location in the store allows for close monitoring of fresh items for the customer.
The bakery section also features locally sourced doughnuts from Miss Gigi’s Sweets, a downtown bakery specializing in candies, pastries, pies and breads.
At Holiday Stationstores, roller grills keep the hot dogs warm and fresh. Steamers are a thing of the past, “with the roller grill you get to see them as they cook as compared to when we had the old steamers,” Reed said.
Before the COVID Pandemic, “We would normally have a bunch of toppings that you could put on your hotdogs such as relish, mustard, onions. A whole lot of stuff which makes it even more appetizing.”
Near the front door is a section labeled PRODUCE that offers up oranges, apples, and bananas along with bags of dried fruit chips. Nearby are options of humus and salads.
Fresh is the new motto with bean-to-cup coffee, freshly made milkshakes from a machine that blends ice cream in a cup to desired thickness, and fresh sandwiches, burgers and ribs.
On two walls of the store are coolers with a variety of choices for soft drinks and beer. These days the most popular alcoholic beverage is flavored seltzer containing about 5% alcohol. White Claw Hard Seltzer comes in flavors of black cherry, ruby grapefruit, watermelon and lemon. According to Metzen, mango is the flavor du jour. Reed shared, “We try to focus on local breweries including Lewis and Clark, the Cold Smoke and Uberbrew.” Metzen also pointed out that wines from Yellowstone Cellar and Winery, located nearby, are also available.
Milk, cold-cuts and other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are available. A freezer section offers up a variety of ice creams, frozen yogurt and pizzas. Metzen said, “Especially with hotels around us, a lot of people want something they can heat up and take.” With a little ingenuity a complete meal can be prepared and carried.
COVID restrictions introduced the use of DoorDash to deliver groceries, beverages, snacks and sandwiches to customers. “We have about 200 items that are available, so it’s not everything in the store. What we try to focus on are the fresh foods, and a lot of the snacks, whether they were the savory snacks or sweet snacks. We also offered our fountain drinks and coffee program “.
While Holiday Stationstores primary goal is to provide convenience, Valeria Jeffries hopes customers will “Come in and check us out. You can’t get food any fresher.”